Gathered around the dinner table at Boys Hope Girls Hope of Baton Rouge, a dozen teens ignore the just-delivered pizza.
Their undivided attention is on the tall man at the head of the table. They listen intently as the groundbreaking Baton Rouge lawyer talks about ambition and success.
Judge Freddie Pitcher Jr. is preaching the importance of perseverance and his congregation of high-achieving students are drinking it in.
He traces his rise from a working class African-American neighborhood through college, the Army and then starting law school as a young man with a family.
"It's all about keeping your focus and understanding why you're doing it in the first place," Pitcher tells them.
Pitcher isn't the first to sit around this table with these students at the Boys Hope Girls Hope house. And he won't be the last.
Nearly every week, the teens hear from a prominent member of the community. Called the Kitchen Table Talk, the weekly discussion creates an opportunity for the students enrolled in the program to learn from successful women and men.
"What we know is that the diverse experience of being exposed to these particular sessions gives them fuel they otherwise would not have," says John G. Daniel, executive director of Boys Hope Girls Hope.
Politicians, athletes, entrepreneurs, architects and journalists visit, nearly one a week. Pitcher, the first African-American judge in Baton Rouge after being elected to the City Court in 1983, is the 40th guest of the Kitchen Table Talk.
These students at Boys Hope Girls Hope show great promise, but they joined the program because they lack the resources many other college-bound students have. They all attend, on scholarship, elite schools like Catholic High School and St. Joseph's Academy, or Baton Rouge Magnet High School, for example, but most do not have college-educated parents. Some of them live at the nonprofit's house in Mid City Baton Rouge while others study there daily. All have dedicated themselves to growth.
The former chancellor of the Southern University Law Center, Pitcher has seen promising students lose focus and drop out.
"You only get out of the pipeline what you put into it," Pitcher says. "I used to tell my students that all the time. If you want to be successful, you can’t let up."
After listening to Pitcher for half an hour, 16-year-old Taaj Abdul Salaam asks a question that taps into his civil rights experience. He asks how they should maintain patience during tense times, like the shootings and protests in Baton Rouge over the summer.
"The information I get from this kind of talk applies to life," says Salaam, a sophomore at Catholic High. "It gives you a little more insight."
Last year, Daniel implemented the talks after reflecting on his childhood as one of 11 kids. His parents would share wisdom and give advice during dinnertime.
"They used creative ways to have that Kitchen Table Talk with a piece of lemon cake and a glass of milk, and they would probably tell you the same story again and again but a little differently," Daniel said.
Born in 1897 and 1913, Daniel's parents grew up in uncertain times, he said. They sought to instill in their children a sense of accountability and poise and taught them to think deeply about certain particular aspects of their lives.
"What you do with your free time and who you hang out with and what you read or watch are going to make a big difference in building the success from within," he said.
Daniel asks guests at the Kitchen Table Talks to share their own life lessons while reflecting on the importance of using free time wisely, making good friendships and reading, watching and listening to things that improve their lives.
While the regular talks aren't mandatory, Daniel tries to schedule them around after-school activities so most students can attend. They know the importance of the sessions, he says.
Listening to a diverse group of speakers has helped open the students to new career paths and ways of thinking, Daniel says. Francis Dinh, 16, a sophomore at Catholic High, remembers being fascinated by the life of an architect who spoke.
"It's kind of inspirational," Dinh says.
Before he leaves for the night, and the pizza boxes are opened, Pitcher reminds the students that they need help from friends and family to reach their goals.
"This is a family you are part of," he says. "This family is helping you get where you want to go."